Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Writing Words for Nerds #AtoZChallenge--V is for Voice (Have you found yours?)

There’s a fun improv game you can play where you say the same thing in a bunch of different ways.

For example, try saying “I love you” in the following ways: bashfully, sarcastically, like Captain Kirk (remember . . . to pause in the . . . most unexpected of places), like a rock star (yeah, baby!), like a slimy politician (don’t forget to vote for me), angrily, drunk, like a little kid, like a parrot, and like Siri.

These are just a few examples. Maybe you want to come up with a few on your own. Or maybe you’d like to try different words. I used to play a similar game with my daughter and her friends, where we would read a children’s book in different ways. Believe me, Dr. Seuss sounds a lot funnier if you read his words furiously.

What makes this game interesting is that you soon discover that words change their meaning depending on how you say them. Spoken bashfully, “I love you” sounds deep, so deep that it scares the speaker just a bit; but spoken sarcastically, it sounds more like “I despise you.”  

You might be thinking, “What does any of this have to do with writing?”

While different literary agents and editors are looking for different genres, one thing that almost all of them are looking for is a unique and interesting voice.

Written words actually do have a “voice.” It’s the thing that differentiates one writer from another, the way each of us can express the same thing in a different way.

Some of us are like standup comedians. We write in our own voice. Jane Austen was like that. Her words are uniquely hers. No one else could have written them, not unless they were great at mimicking her voice.

Others are more like actors. We write in the voice of a character we’re playing. Daniel Handler wrote the Series of Unfortunate Events books like that under the name Lemony Snicket. I’d say Louise Rennison wrote her Georgia Nicolson books like that, although I’ve been told by people who heard her speak that Georgia’s voice was Rennison’s. They say she actually spoke like a teenage girl “on the rack of lurrrv,” and she really was the bestie every girl wanted to have.

Of the books that I’ve written, Toren the Teller’s Tale is close to my writer’s voice, although it’s heavily influenced by the voices of the various storytellers in it, particularly Toren herself. Dan Quixote: Boy of Nuevo Jersey has a lot of my voice in it, although a younger version of it.  I think Ride of Your Life comes closest to my true writer’s voice. Yes, it has focal characters, so the voice adjusts depending on the point-of-view character in a scene. But I do think you get a lot of my voice, my style, the way I put words together into sentences and sentences into paragraphs.

On the other hand, Why My Love Life Sucks was written in Gilbert Garfinkle’s voice, not mine.  I suppose parts of me get into his voice, just a bit. We’re both proud geeks, after all, both love science and both want to fix the world in our own way. He’s a lot smarter and younger than I am, though, and male. And I’ve given him some things that are the opposite of me, just so I could try on his way of seeing things. Gilbert loves heights, because I’m afraid of heights. Gilbert loves extreme sports for the same reason. He’s brave where I’m scared, and sometimes he’s scared where I’m brave. 

I think I prefer to write in someone else’s voice. I know I prefer to write in Gilbert’s. When I write in my own voice, I feel self-conscious. What will readers think of me? What if they don’t find me funny? What if they don’t like my writing? What if they don’t like me at all? Gilbert, on the other hand, could hardly care less. He just sees the world the way he sees it, and it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. Writing in his voice also makes me feel like I’m not doing this alone. I have a friend in my head. I can take him anywhere I like. And he is geeking awesome.  I would listen to his voice all day if I could.

While different literary agents and editors are looking for different genres, one thing that almost all of them are looking for is a unique and interesting voice.

So how do you, the writer, give them what they want?

That’s a good question. After all, if there were an easy answer, everyone would be doing it.

When it comes to a personal voice, you probably already have one. You probably already have a unique way of saying things that’s different from how other people say them. You can develop that voice by reading a lot books and seeing how you would say things differently.

Maybe you wouldn’t say “I love you.” Maybe you would say “I hate you” in such a way that deep down everyone reading it would know you actually mean “I love you.” 

Maybe you would say, “As you wish,” like Westley in The Princess Bride

Or maybe when told “I love you,” you’d say “I know,” like Hans Solo tells Princess Leia in The Empire Strikes Back.  

Or maybe you wouldn’t say it at all. Maybe you’d show it with the things that you do, or maybe you’d think it and be too scared to say it out loud.

Whatever way you have that’s unique to you, pay attention to it. Cultivate it.

Many new writers try to write like someone else, but you need to write in the way that only you can. That’s the only way you’ll stand out. That’s the only way your voice can be heard above the rest.

As for writing in a character’s voice . . . This one is a bit trickier to explain.

I think you need to know the character inside and out. It could help to write down their entire life’s story, all the things they like and don’t like and why, all their greatest dreams and deepest fears. It could also help to draw them or find a photo of someone who makes you think of them. You have to know who they truly are, and you have to let your characters speak for themselves. You can’t try to control their voices. If you can treat them like they’re real people—not puppets for you to manipulate—they’ll be more likely to have their own unique voices, the way that real people do.

Two small technical notes: first, avoid writing things like “he saw,” “she thought,” or “I felt.” There’s nothing between your character and the things that are affecting them, so don’t put your character between them.  Instead of writing “He saw her as she left,” simply write “She left.” Instead of writing “she thought it might be nice to meet him for coffee,” write “Meeting him for coffee might be nice.” Instead of writing “I felt reassured,” write “So it wasn’t all bad.” And second, if you’re writing in first person, watch out for the “evil I.” You’ll probably have to sprinkle a few I’s in your first-person manuscript, but you don’t want to overdo it. People who say “I” a lot are usually self-absorbed, so if your character isn’t meant to be an egomaniac, try to edit most of those out.

I’m currently writing the end of Why It Still Mega Bites, the sequel to Why My Love Life Sucks. It’s fun, but also challenging, because a big part of the book is written in Amber’s voice. Getting inside her head and seeing things through her bright blue eyes and strange mix of hope and insecurity feels weird, I’ve really enjoyed it. I think it helps not to judge your point of view character too harshly, to accept that they are who they are, to see them as they see themselves. It probably helps to view the people around you that way, too. Try to have an open mind and put yourself in another’s shoes. Maybe it will make you a better writer. It probably couldn’t hurt.

Whatever you do, try to keep your voice authentic to yourself or your character. Don’t write anything for convenience or because that’s the way you think the character is supposed to be or the way the genre is supposed to be written. An authentic voice is rarely convenient and often breaks the rules.

And that, I think, is the kind of voice literary agents and editors are looking for, a voice that’s different because it breaks the rules. 

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